Monday, October 31, 2005

For Afghans, more tricks than treats

Excuse the Halloween metaphor, but in reading the report of the latest indictments against US soldiers for abuse in Afghanistan, it was hard to resist.

Two Engineers of the 296th Combat Engineers Battalion stationed in Tarin Kwot, Oruzgan, were charged with assault on two prisoners held there in July. The only information released says the men were kicked in the stomach, body and head by these soldiers during the two days they awaited transfer to Bagram.

There are many questions raised by this latest "treat" of accountability offered to Afghans.

Firstly, and most obviously, why are Combat Engineers (normally in the business of blowing up bridges) in the business of building up Afghan infrastructure in a combat zone? How are they supposed to peacefully build up Afghanistan's infrastructure, offering lasting "treats" to the locals while encountering combat situations and taking prisoners? Doesn't it seem strange to have Engineers sweeping up prisoners, let alone beating them up? If the roads are being built for humanitarian reasons (more than one has been funded by USAID), how can "combat engineers" be soldiers and humanitarians at the same time?

Rebuilding Afghanistan while at war there credit

Secondly, given that as US spokesmen report, of only 120 reports of abuse in Afghanistan, only 17 have been substantiated, isn't this indictment merely a "trick" to distract attention from the over 100 "unsubstantiated" cases? (In Army speak, "unsubstantiated" often means an investigation was not finished due to logistical or security reasons, it does not always indicate a thorough refutation of the allegations.)

Navy documents (.pdf) regarding "unsubstantiated" watered-down version of report in "Taliban Country"

One "unsubstantiated" case even occured in the exact same location (Oruzgan Province) one year prior, as featured on our site, Taliban Country. In this film, 35 male villagers (including elders) claim they were taken prisoner and sexually humiliated and abused. Ironically, the reason for the lack of evidence, or "unsubstantiation," of these allegations in Taliban Country was that the area was "too unsafe" to investigate in. (But not of course, for "road-building" engineers to take prisoners and beat them.)

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Whistleblowing by US soldiers increasing?

A Human Rights Watch spokesman, in an article by Newsweek, claimed that there have more soldiers coming forward in recent months to denounce abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following the example of Westpoint graduate Captain Ian Fishback, of the 82nd airborne division based in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, more soldiers are coming forward with evidence that abuses are systematic.

Fishback's courage in taking a lonely stand may be paying off. Inspired by his example, "a growing critical mass of soldiers is coming forward with allegations of abuse," says Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based activist group that first revealed Fishback's story. One of them is Anthony Lagouranis, a Chicago-based Army specialist who recently left the military. He supports Fishback's contention that abuses in Iraq were systematic—and were authorized by officers in an effort to pressure detainees into talking. "I think our policies required abuse," says Lagouranis. "There were freaking horrible things people were doing. I saw [detainees] who had feet smashed with hammers. One detainee told me he had been forced by Marines to sit on an exhaust pipe, and he had a softball-sized blister to prove it. The stuff I did was mainly torture lite: sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions, hypothermia. We used dogs."

Another issue raised by Fishback and others is that virtually no high-ranking officers have been held responsible for abuses. So far, those tried for abuses have been low-ranking soldiers and reservists.

But Defense officials rarely point out that no senior officers or civilian officials have been charged since Abu Ghraib. Other officers say they too are seething over the lack of accountability at senior levels. Colonel Zupan, the West Point philosophy teacher, says he himself should have acted when he was deployed in Afghanistan and heard of similar abuses. "I didn't raise my eyebrows about it," he said. "I think it was wrong of me. And if I didn't, as a field officer, then how are we going to be too harsh on an enlisted soldier?"

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US opens new prison facility in N Iraq

The US opened a new prison facility in Northern Iraq in late October that will eventually house 1,700 detainees. The rennovation of an old Russian-built army training facility cost $8 million and required over 400 laborers. Fort Suse is located north of Baghdad near Sulaimaniyah in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

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Friday, October 28, 2005

NPR reports on the final hours of Jamadi

NPR's report on the death of Abu Ghraib "ghost prisoner" Manadel al-Jamadi is quite thorough and helpful in understanding just exactly who is responsible for what in his final hours.

The report is about the 5-1/2 hours between his capture and his death, quoting numerous documents and witnesses.

NPR provides information into the allegations against Jamadi, who was apparently a Saddam confidant, and insurgent cell-leader. He resisted arrest to an unusual degree.

The Navy SEALs who captured him and delivered him to the CIA interrogators feel that they have been scapegoated for his death, when in fact CIA interrogators brought him to the point of death and in fact let him die.

Jamadi arrived at Abu Ghraib two hours before his death. In these hours the stories of MPs and CIA interrogators differ substantially. The MPs say that Jamadi died in a "Palestinian hanging" position (at the orders of the CIA), with all of his weight hung on his wrists tied above his head.

Listen to the report with Realplayer or read it here.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

UC Berkeley protest legal 'mind' behind torture

Paradoxically, one of the most progressive law schools in the US, Boalt, at the University of California Berkeley, is also the home of John Yoo, who as ex-assistant Attorney General, drafted the memo (.pdf) that argued that the Geneva Conventions should not apply to the Taliban, paving the way for the resort to torture by US troops in Afghanistan and later Iraq.

Berkeley students have been fairly silent on the issue up until now, except for an earlier small rally. Professor Yoo is on campus and teaching. A student group called "The World Can't Wait! Drive Out the Bush Regime!" began a protest yesterday outside of the law school building, later entering and disrupting Professor Yoo's class.

The protestors, who were led away and ticketed by campus police, were quoted by the Daily Californian as saying that Yoo's students as a whole were more concerned with the disruption of their studies than the issue of torture.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Taliban burning TV report viewable online

The Australian TV report depicting US troops burning Taliban bodies and using the moment to broadcast inflammatory messages into the mountains, is now viewable online as it was broadcast in Australia. The report sparked dismay and outrage around the world and in the blogosphere, and that is currently under investigation by the Pentagon.

If you have Realplayer, you can view it here.

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Bush seeks CIA exemption to torture rules

The Bush-Cheney administration is attempting to pressure the Senate to include an exemption for the CIA in its version (the final version) of the Defense Spending Bill, which calls for clear rules in regards to detainee treatment to prevent torture. Cheney personally handed the suggested wording, which would exempt non-Defense Department personnel working in the war on terror from anti-torture rules, to Arizona Senator John McCain.

The war veteran Republican bristled at the idea, stating to the media, "Any carve-out that would allow any agency of government to engage in torture would be legitimizing the use of torture. This issue isn't going away. We're going to win on this over time."

McCain's amendment which calls for clear rules for the treatment of detainee is an attempt to ban torture which was backed by 90 out of 100 Senators, including prominent Republicans and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

It's hard not to editorialize here, and ask: how can a President who has experienced the most dramatic fall in popularity in recent times afford to pressure Congress to allow the US to engage in torture?

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Monday, October 24, 2005

ACLU releases 44 detainee autopsies

The ACLU made another large document release on Monday, including the full autopsies made for 44 detainee deaths that occurred in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The documents show that 21 of the 44 deaths were homicide (meaning not natural causes of death). Many of the 21 resulted from gunshot wounds (some from combat, others unclear), and some were from asphyxiation, beatings and hypothermia. The latter indicate that a number of detainees were indeed tortured to death.

This is the most complete accounting for deaths of detainees in US custody to date.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Total impunity: CIA free to kill at will?

The New York Times' Tim Golden and Douglas Jehl, who have been following the detainee abuse issue on various fronts, published an interesting article on Saturday explaining how CIA agents implicted in more three Iraqi/Afghan detainee deaths will get off without facing criminal charges.

Quoting largely anonymous sources within the intelligence community, the article reveals that Federal prosecutors have notified the CIA that no charges will be brought against agents for their alleged involvement at Abu Ghraib, the "Salt Pit" interrogation center in Afghanistan (where a prisoner died of hypothermia), and the murder of a former Iraqi general by asphyxiation at American base Al Asad.

The article reveals that the CIA provided prosecutors with 8 dossiers related to the homicides, yet according to the Times' sources, prosecutors will only pursue cases involving defense contractros, such as the charges against David Passaro.

The Times article provided a synopsis of the alleged involvement of the CIA in each case, including the infamous Abu Ghraib killing of Manadel al-Jamadi:

Mr. Jamadi's death was among the most notorious of the incidents at Abu Ghraib that became public in the spring of 2004, in part because his body was photographed wrapped in plastic and packed in ice. He died after being beaten by commandos of the Navy Seals who struck him in the head with rifle butts and then turned him over to C.I.A. interrogators at Abu Ghraib.

A lieutenant in the Navy Seals was acquitted in May of striking Mr. Jamadi and failing to restrain his men from hitting Mr. Jamadi. The lieutenant, Andrew K. Ledford, remains the only person to have been prosecuted in that death.

Eight members of the Seals and a sailor who served under him, received administrative punishments for abusing Mr. Jamadi and other detainees.

Former intelligence officials have said that questions remain about the role of a C.I.A. officer and a contract interrogator who had taken custody of Mr. Jamadi and were questioning him in the shower room at Abu Ghraib when he died. Mr. Jamadi was found with his hands bound behind his back and shackled to a barred window. Mr. Jamadi had not been examined by a physician when he was brought to Abu Ghraib, because the C.I.A. officers had circumvented normal procedures of registering his presence as a prisoner.

An intelligence official briefed on the case said it was clear that the C.I.A. officers and members of the Navy Seals team bore some responsibility for the prisoner's death, but that the legal culpability of each was difficult to untangle. A government official who reviewed a coroner's report said evidence suggested that Mr. Jamadi's broken ribs - apparently sustained in beatings by the Navy Seals - contributed to his death.

"It may have been too hard a case to prove," said the intelligence official, referring to possible criminal charges against the C.I.A. employees. "He was in de facto agency custody, but he was in a military prison. They could see that he was injured, but they maybe didn't know he was so injured. If he had had a medical examination they would have known. But they didn't do one."

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Friday, October 21, 2005

US troops caught desecrating Taliban bodies

The Australian state broadcaster SBS showed highly sensitive footage yesterday of US troops burning two bodies of Taliban fighters killed in combat in a village north of Kandahar. The US military first claimed the bodies were burned for public health reasons, as the men were killed the day before.

But in Islamic culture, burning of bodies is seen as desecration, and freelance embedded cameraman Stephen Dupont, who captured the images, also witnessed Psychological Operations troops attempting to lure Taliban in the nearby area by broadcasting offenses over loud speakers.

According to the SBS report, the PsyOps soldiers played the following message along with American pop music: "You are too scared to retrieve their bodies - this just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."

Earlier, less controversial work of PsyOps in Afghanistan: "The partnership of nations is here to help"

In response to a growing uproar, and the footage playing on news channels across the world, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Jason Kamiya, flew to Kandahar to consult officers about the incident. The State Department called the action "unrepresentative" of American values.

The burning of the bodies seems to have been intended to offend Muslim sensibilities, and was also in extremely clear contravention of the Geneva Conventions. The Washington Post coverage provides analysis similar to that of the Australian TV correspondents:

"If true, the incident would fit a seeming pattern that has emerged of the U.S. military gaining enough knowledge of Islamic culture and sensitivities to devise ways of offending Muslims," said Khaled Abu el Fadl, a specialist in Islamic law at UCLA law school.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Reservists convicted for new Iraq abuses

Seven California Army National guardsmen were convicted this week of abuses committed in Iraq during the early part of this year. While military officials have refused to provide detail into the nature of the abuses, it has been widely reported that the abuses including the use of taser guns on temporary detainees. The sentences handed down included imprisonment and hard labor. Other soldiers were merely "disciplined." It seems, failing the leak of the video referred to in this LA Times article, the public will never know what abuses were committed by these soldiers.

But the accusations appear to focus largely on abuse that took place in March at a power plant near Baghdad.

An unknown number of Iraqis were taken into custody there, military officials have said, and were tortured or otherwise mistreated by soldiers.

The Iraqis were believed to be insurgents at the time they were taken into custody, but one member of the battalion, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk about the incident, said none were insurgents, though several appear to have been common thieves. All but one of the detainees were soon released.

The abuse involved the use of a stun gun on men who were handcuffed. The stun gun was used on at least one man's testicles, the member of the battalion said.

A portion of the abuse was captured on video. A soldier who was not involved in the mistreatment later discovered the footage on a laptop computer and gave it to his commanders.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

"Non-convicted" detainees to vote

Reuters reported this week that all "non-convicted" detainees will be provided voting stations by the Independent Electoral Commission for October 15's referendum on the draft constitution in Iraq.

The US military has declined to comment on the statements by Iraqi election officials, who claim to be preparing the logistics for detainee voting at Camp Cropper (at Baghdad airport), and Abu Ghraib. Two days before nationwide polling begins, over 10,000 detainees, mostly Sunni Arabs, will be given a chance to vote on the constitution, which has been widely rejected by prominent Sunnis.

Western newspapers hyped the quite unimportant fact that Saddam Hussein will be allowed to vote, given his trial will only begin October 19, and he has yet to be convicted of any crime.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

US Senate demands "clarification" from Pentagon

After growing pressure from the mainstream media and the general public, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to demand a "clarification" from the Pentagon in its policy for detainee treatment. The Whitehouse opposed the measure, which was attached to a defense spending bill. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell supported the measure, as did highly decorated war-veteran and Republican Senate leader John McCain.

This measure does not restrict the activity of the CIA or other government agencies, specifically the "rendition", or kidnapping of suspects and delivery to countries which practice torture.

The House must reconcile its version of the bill to the Senate version for it to become law.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Witch-hunt against Army whisteblowers?

The 26-yr old officer of the Army's 82nd airborne who denounced ongoing abuses against detainees in Forward Operating Base Mercury in Iraq, Capt. Ian Fishback, says he now feels under attack.

The Sunday Times reports that instead of launching a wide-ranging, thorough investigation of the allegations (that prisoners were used as punching bags for entertainment), the military has threatened to force Capt. Fishback to reveal his anonymous sources, two sergeants in the 1st battalion, 504.

Capt. Fishback promised secrecy to his sources, and could be prosecuted first for protecting their identities.

While it does seem Fishback's cooperation is key to the Army's investigation, if the allegations are at all true, it seems plenty of other men in uniform could be subpoened to testify about the alleged abuses.

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$25 and a Koran

On the eve of Ramadan, the US military has released two groups of 500 prisoners each from Abu Ghraib as a "good-will" gesture. The second release occurred early this week.

"I want you to go back to your families and say hello to them ... go back as good Iraqi citizens," Deputy Prime Minister Abed Mutlak al-Jibouri told the men.

The selected detainees were found by an Iraqi-led review board not to have committed serious crimes.

They were given a white shirt, $25, and a Koran.